Unicoi sheriff says pay plan would benefit county

Brad Hicks • Jul 24, 2013 at 9:43 PM

ERWIN — Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley said something he heard recently best sums up his department’s move to introduce a step raise system for its officers.

“There was a guy that told me this today, and it’s about as good a quote as I’ve heard in a long time — ‘I’d rather put a guardrail at the top of a curve than an ambulance at the bottom of the hill,’ ” Hensley said. “What I mean by that is, if you put the guardrail up then you’re going to save somebody from going over and getting hurt. So that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to be proactive for the benefit of the county and the benefit of this department.”

On Wednesday, Hensley responded to Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch’s comments following a Tuesday meeting of the County Commission’s Finance Committee and talked about the need for a step raise system for the sheriff’s department.

Among the budgets discussed at Tuesday’s meeting was the sheriff’s department’s projected budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year. During the course of the discussion, department officials introduced the step raise proposal for departmental employees.

Through this 10-year system, deputies would receive a raise of around $1,000 a year, or a little more than $80 per month, each year for a 10-year period, at which time the raises would stop. Higher-ranking officials within the department, excluding the sheriff, whose salary is set by the state, would receive raises of $500 each year over the 10-year period. Raises under this proposed system were put into the sheriff’s department’s projected budget discussed Tuesday.

Following the meeting, Lynch said he was surprised by the proposal, as county officeholders the Finance Committee had met with up to that point had been advised not to include employee raises in their projected 2013-14 budgets since the topic of raises was to be discussed later. Lynch also said he feels a countywide step raise system should be implemented, not a system exclusive to the sheriff’s department, and more time is needed to develop a countywide system.

Hensley said he was advised only that his department’s budget would be up for discussion at the meeting, and that it was never directly conveyed to him that the topic of raises was not to be broached. Hensley also said he “respectfully disagreed” that the sheriff’s department can be compared to other county offices due to the nature of its work, and that he is standing by his proposed system.

“We look at the pros and cons of every decision that we make, and there’s no question in my mind that this step raise that has been formulated is a step in the right direction for the county and for the sheriff’s department,” Hensley said.

The sheriff said the system is a proactive approach to bolstering officer retention. He said the county is responsible for the costs of training and equipping newly hired officers. Hensley said having such officers leave for another law enforcement agency after a short stint with the sheriff’s department is akin to “throwing money in a fire,” and the raise system may encourage such officers to remain on board. He said now would be a good time to act on the proposal since his department has been mandated to hire new employees.

“It’s just good business,” Hensley said of the proposed system. “Any company will tell you that you have to give an incentive to an employee to keep them working for you, especially the ones that do a good job, that perform their duties, and there’s been no incentive given to the sheriff’s department.”

But the proposed system is just as much reactive, as the department has served as a “training ground” since a number of officers have left for jobs with other agencies. Hensley said a step raise system would increase the department’s retention of trained and veteran officers. He added that this would not only enhance county safety through the retention of knowledgeable and seasoned officers, but officer retention would save the county money in the long run.

“These (officers), they’re doing an outstanding job for the people of this county,” Hensley said. “To retain those people, we absolutely have to take care of them. As a sheriff, I’m proud to have them and I’ve got to do everything I can to stand up for my employees, within reason, and take care of them.”

The subject of a countywide step raise system has been brought up by county commissioners over the past few years, but Hensley said he is not aware of any action taken to implement one or any county official or officeholder bringing a proposal to the table.

“I have never seen anything laid on the table as a proposal for a step raise, nothing,” Hensley said. “That was what we had done. We laid out a proposal that is affordable, that everybody can live, that would give incentive for other officers stay here, and it’s a win-win situation for the county itself.”

Hensley said the proposed system was developed using the Tennessee Highway Patrol’s system as a template, but figures in the sheriff’s department’s proposed system were reduced from those used by the THP to better meet Unicoi County’s budgetary constraints.

“I fully take the taxpayers into consideration in all of my budgets, but I just don’t look at the current situation, I look at down the road,” Hensley said. “I’m looking ahead to save the county, and it will over a period of years. And not only will it save the county, it will keep good, seasoned officers with this department.”

Hensley said he has found the commission “good to work with” since becoming sheriff, and said he believes commissioners are aware he would not request unnecessary items. The proposed system would not become effective until approved by the commission. Hensley said he is prepared to back up the proposed system with “facts, figures and past experiences.”

“All I can do as a sheriff is stand up for my employees and present it to the County Commission, then it’s on them to either grant me the money to do it or I’ll just have to make out the best I can,” Hensley said. “But at least I can say I tried.”

On Wednesday, Lynch stood by the comments he made following Tuesday’s meeting. While Lynch said he is not opposed to seeing sheriff’s department officers receive raises or the implementation of step raises, he would like to see “across the board” raises given to all the county’s employees in the 2013-14 fiscal year. He said this would give county officials time to discuss and study a step raise system that could be put into place for the county’s more than 100 employees.

“I don’t have anything against step raises, but I think when we go to step raises, the whole county needs to go at the same time,” Lynch said.

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